The 2021 Benton County Fair and Rodeo was scheduled to kick off its four-day run on Wednesday, Aug. 4 — until county commissioners decided, in May, to pull the plug on the fair for the second straight year, due to worries about COVID.
The county announced the news in a press release: “Although vaccination rates in Benton County are the highest in the state, case rates remain high. Given this fact, and based on a recommendation by the County’s Health Department, the Benton County Board of Commissioners decided to cancel the public activities of this year’s Fair,” the press release said. (The only county official quoted by name in the press release was Lynne McKee, the county’s director of Natural Areas, Parks and Events.)
Some modified 4-H events will be held during fair week, and the 4-H Lee Allen Memorial Auction will be an in-person event on Saturday, Aug. 7 — although the website for the event as of Wednesday wasn’t making mention of any particular coronavirus restrictions that would be in place for the auction. (A requirement for masks might be a good idea, considering the onset of the delta variant.)
My purpose here isn’t to blast the county for making this call; I can’t say that I think it was a bad decision, although it must have rankled Benton County Fair officials to see the Linn County Fair proceed as scheduled earlier this summer, racking up record attendance and revenue. (Whoever said Benton County never did anything to boost Linn County’s economy?)
Rather, I think it’s worthwhile to reflect on what a difficult decision this was — because there’s every indication that many other difficult coronavirus-related decisions await in the months (and probably years) ahead.
According to numbers compiled by The New York Times, as of Tuesday, Benton County has been averaging 15 new COVID cases daily over the past seven days, a two-week increase of 170%. The 34 new cases reported on Aug. 2 mark the highest such number since mid-February. (By the way, according to the Times, both Hood River and Multnomah counties have higher vaccination rates than Benton County.)
But in mid-May, when the county made the decision to pull the plug on the 2021 fair, COVID cases in the county were declining, as this chart from the Times shows. Cases in the county didn’t start rising until early July, as the delta variant started to show its strength. The same trend holds, more or less, for Linn County.
I can only guess at the data behind the Health Department’s recommendation to the county commission; the announcement about the cancellation received only perfunctory press coverage. But I think it’s safe to assume that the department wanted to make the safest call possible — and it seems likely that health officials were watching the advent of delta elsewhere. (By early May, delta was responsible for 1.3% of COVID cases in the United States, up from 0.1% in April; by June, the number was 9.5%. The number now is 82.2%.) With the upsurge in COVID cases (mostly among unvaccinated people), canceling the fair now seems like a reasonable position, although you have to feel for McKee, who was building some momentum at the fair, which has suffered from declining attendance for years, and now essentially has to start from scratch — two years away is a big gap.
It also seems likely that this won’t be the last tough COVID call officials will have to make about public events. It would be foolhardy to think that delta has run its course yet or that it will be the last coronavirus variant. It all makes you wonder if pronouncements such as the recent one from Oregon State University — that Reser Stadium will be open for football this fall at full capacity, complete with an illustration showing jubilant (and unmasked) fans — might be premature.
There are, of course, at least a couple of things that each of us can do to make these decisions a little easier for everyone: Get vaccinated. And keep your masks handy: If you’re not using them in indoor public places now, you will be soon. We’re settling in for the long haul against the coronavirus.
Update, Thursday, Aug. 19: The Benton County Board of Commissioners made it official at its Tuesday meeting: The commissioners required masks in outdoor public settings where it was impossible to maintain 6 feet of distance between people — this presumably would include Reser Stadium for the Beavers’ two September home games. It’s not clear yet how OSU officials will handle this, but it seems likely they’d prefer a stadium at full, rather than reduced, capacity. The Gazette-Times had the story on Thursday, but you could have seen it a couple of days before that at The Oregonian/OregonLive.